POCATELLO — Citing a lack of corroborating evidence, Bannock County’s chief deputy prosecutor had no intention of pursuing rape and lewd conduct charges against a Pocatello elementary school teacher just six weeks before a grand jury indicted her on the charges, court records say.
The teacher, Tiffany Marie Petersen, 46, of Pocatello, appeared untroubled Friday as she sat with her attorney, Shane Reichert of Pocatello, during a motions hearing in front of Judge Mitchell Brown at the Bannock County Courthouse in Pocatello.
The hearing was the start of Reichert’s attempt to prove Petersen is innocent of raping and molesting one of her first-grade students 10 years ago by presenting Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office documents showing that the chief deputy prosecutor who was initially handling her case believed there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her.
Reichert also said that Petersen was charged with the sex crimes and her good reputation as a school teacher has been forever tarnished despite the fact she passed a polygraph test, and he likened her ordeal to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who he said faced similarly false allegations.
Petersen is a Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 teacher at Syringa Elementary School in Pocatello, who has been on administrative leave from the district since January 2018.
Petersen and her former husband, David James McGarry, 50, of Jerome, are each facing charges of rape and lewd conduct against a child under 16, both felonies, after Ashley Graham, a Bannock County deputy prosecutor, presented the allegations against them to a Bannock County grand jury in January.
During a phone interview with the Idaho State Journal after Friday’s hearing, Reichert said that by charging Petersen and McGarry via grand jury indictments, county prosecutors faced a lesser burden to present probable cause evidence to prove Petersen and McGarry actually committed the sex crimes. The grand jury process bypasses a preliminary hearing that would have provided defense attorneys with an opportunity to cross examine the defendants’ accusers and challenge the validity of the allegations.
“The (Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office) bypassed a preliminary hearing and presented the grand jury with information it thought was appropriate, and only what it thought was appropriate,” Reichert said.
Petersen and McGarry allegedly raped and molested an 8-year-old boy starting in August 2008 while Petersen, who was McGarry’s girlfriend at the time, was the boy’s teacher at Washington Elementary School in Pocatello, according to the Jan. 16 indictments.
The alleged abuse occurred inside the school, according to court records. McGarry was apparently allowed to be with Petersen in her classroom as she taught her students.
Petersen later transferred from Washington Elementary School to her current position at Syringa Elementary School. Petersen and McGarry also later married but then got a divorce.
Petersen’s former student who was allegedly raped and molested has filed a civil lawsuit against her and School District 25 because of the alleged sexual abuse.
Friday’s hearing stemmed from a memo Reichert obtained as part of the evidentiary sharing process between him and county prosecutors. The memo was authored by Bannock County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Zach Parris, who had handled the allegations against Petersen and McGarry from when they were first reported to police in January 2018 to when he passed the case off to Graham last December.
Parris’ memo was dated Dec. 5, 2018 — exactly six weeks before the grand jury returned the indictments on Petersen and McGarry and nearly a year after Parris first began investigating the case.
“The disclosure (from Petersen’s former student) occurred 10 years after the alleged sexual abuse,” Parris wrote in the memo. “There is no physical evidence to corroborate the victim’s allegations due to the late disclosure. There is nothing contained in the (police) report, nor could I find, after investigating more, any corroborating evidence to support the sexual molestation allegations. For these reasons, this case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and therefore must be rejected.”
After he received Parris’ memo earlier this month, Reichert filed a motion on Sept. 6 asking Brown to compel county prosecutors to provide him with, among other requests, any and all information and documents related to Parris’ investigation into the allegations against Petersen and McGarry. To allow Reichert and county prosecutors an opportunity to argue the merits of the motion, Brown held Friday’s hearing, during which he ordered county prosecutors to produce the material Reichert requested by Oct. 4 regarding Parris’ investigation.
“I want to know what his investigation entailed,” Reichert said. “I want to know if there are any notes, recordings, documents or anything of that nature that are pertinent to this case.”
Reichert also said Petersen has been nothing but cooperative with local authorities for more than a year after her former student reported his allegations to police.
“My office has been representing Ms. Tiffany Petersen since January of 2018 working closely with law enforcement and chief deputy prosecuting attorney Zach Parris,” Reichert said. “My client submitted to and passed a polygraph. In addition, after numerous discussions about the case, law enforcement contacted me and Parris confirmed that they would not be pursuing criminal charges against Ms. Petersen in December 2018.”
The significance of Parris’ memo, according to Reichert, is that there were no material changes in the information pertaining to the alleged sexual abuse that law enforcement and Parris gathered during their investigations when compared to the information the grand jury was presented with to indict Petersen and McGarry.
Furthermore, Reichert compared the criminal charges against Petersen to the allegations against now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh that arose during his confirmation to the nation’s highest court of law last October.
“This is similar to the allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh,” Reichert said. “If you look at that story, the allegations were from many years ago and law enforcement did not conduct an investigation. That is what is happening here — one person’s allegation, which could happen to anyone. There is no difference.”
This latest development in Petersen’s case comes after Reichert had already extensively questioned the grand jury process used to indict Petersen and McGarry on the charges they face, something the Idaho State Journal spoke to Parris about last month.
During the interview at the Bannock County Courthouse on Aug. 27, Parris said that he has handled sex crimes cases in the county for many years but is going to retire soon. Graham is taking over Parris’ role in terms of handling Bannock County sex crimes cases and she initiated the grand jury process against McGarry and Petersen even though Parris didn’t think there was enough evidence to convict them, Parris said.
Reichert said he had no knowledge of Graham’s intention to present the case to a grand jury prior to Petersen’s arrest this past January. Both McGarry and Petersen were arrested and briefly incarcerated at the Bannock County Jail before McGarry posted bond and Petersen was released on her own recognizance.
Graham declined to comment for this article, but Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog said he was aware Graham had taken over the case and supported her decision to utilize a grand jury.
“Not every case a prosecutor looks at is always black and white,” Herzog said about Graham’s decision to use the grand jury after Parris had opted not to pursue criminal charges against Petersen and McGarry. “Sometimes there is a gray area and there is always room for a difference of interpretations.”
Petersen is scheduled to take her case to trial at the Bannock County Courthouse on Oct. 22 and McGarry’s trial, also set at the Bannock County Courthouse, is expected to start on Nov. 19.
Petersen and McGarry are each facing a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of the charges against them.
Reichert maintains Petersen is innocent and says the allegations against her are unwarranted and have caused irreparable damage to her career as an educator.
“Ms. Petersen has asserted and maintained her innocence since the commencement of this investigation in 2018,” Reichert said. “Obviously this has negatively impacted her life in a significant way.”
Reichert continued, “She has been a well-respected teacher in the community for 20-plus years, yet she has been placed on administrative leave and unable to teach and mold the minds of children, which she loves to do. Uncorroborated allegations from 10 years ago should not be the basis in which someone’s life is turned upside down.”